Sometimes one does something because one thinks they ought, not because they feel passionate about it, and this was the very situation I found myself in in the 1970’s. It was the era of Campaign Marches. Ban the Bomb, still going on from the 60’s. (some of those protesters looked as though they had been marching non-stop since the 60’s, scruffy lot they were!) Stop the Fur Trade, something we eventually managed to do in the UK, and of course, Women’s Rights. It was the name that inspired me. I was after all in my 20’s, married and therefore eminently qualified, as a women, to protest. The trouble was, I was never quite sure just what I was protesting about. Equal Pay? Well I was a secretary and quite well paid and would never have expected my boss to drop his earnings down to mine. Equal Opportunities? There were women in politics, and a number of women judges, heaps of women doctors, and of course, our country was headed by a female monarch. That, sad to say at that time, was the full extent of my understanding. I was perhaps just a little too naive to get it. What I did get was the word Rights, I figured I must have some, and if there was a call to protest for them then it was obvious I wasn’t getting them, whatever they may be. So I joined the throng.
Throng is the ideal word for what I came up against when I stepped off the train in London (we were living in Chessington, Surrey at the time, so quite a short journey). To this day I would be unable to tell what streets or squares we passed along, there were so many people, mainly female, all carrying home-made banners and wearing no bras, the symbol of our Right to Freedom. (We’d had our instructions a couple of days before on dress-code, jeans, comfy shoes, loose-fitting top and no bra, we had to bring that particular item of clothing with us to ceremoniously burn. I stuffed mine in my handbag, not my best bra I hasten to add, one that had seen better days with the under wiring threatening to make a vicious escape, you know what I mean ladies.)
One often hears the expression ‘being swept along’ but believe me it’s so. We were so tightly packed together that there was no option but to go with the flow. The noise was unbelievable, some shouting their slogans in unionism, some going for their own vocal take on the matter, (one woman beside me was screaming something about men facing up to their responsibility in having kids, I would have loved to ask her if she meant taking over the nest duties from time to time or literally having a go at giving birth!) There was no room for breath or chit-chat. Added to the hub-bub was the hue and cry of the anti-whatever-it-is-you-are-protesting-about-now protesters. This gang almost fall into their own laws of physics, for all matter there is an anti-matter. They were mainly male and very angry. They hurled abusive comments about our sexuality (wanting women’s rights seems to automatically ordain you into lesbianism) then further confused the issue by screaming for us to get back where we belonged, in the kitchen and our husbands beds! The abusive comments were soon punctuated by the occasional missile and fist. It was beginning to get a bit rowdy for my taste, but there was no escape. By this time the march had come to a standstill, no going forwards because of the ever-increasing violent antis, and no turning back due to the press of marchers behind, and that’s when the police stepped in.
It was sometime during the ensuing melee that I managed to get myself arrested. Not, as one would suppose, due to the passion of the cause, nor in a vain attempt to escape, but because of the scoundrel of a copper who came up behind me. One has to bear in mind that in those days besides standing all of 5’4″ tall I was as skinny as a rake with hips more usually seen on a boy, so what on earth made the copper in question grope my backside I will never know. My reaction was electric. with full realisation that it was just this kind of attitude I was marching against, I hit him full pelt over the head with my banner. Thankfully the policeman was wearing his helmet, so the only real damage that was done was to my banner; it was left with a nasty split along the wooden handle, but more of that later.
The ride to the police station in the Black Maria to be formally charged was a noisy affair, fellow protesters yelling out of every available barred window. Me, I sat very still feeling both sick and scared, assaulting a police officer with an offensive weapon is a crime which carries a custodial sentence. On arrival at our destination we were herded into the police station, our names, addresses and ‘phone numbers were taken before we were split into groups and placed in various interview rooms. After what seemed an age of being watched over by a seemingly mute woman officer, the duty sergeant returned and told us we were free to go. Apparently there were a lot more violent protesters and anti-protesters to see to, and we were considered small-fry’ and not worth wasting valuable police time over. We rose and made our way to the door. Then can you imagine my horror when, along with a couple of other women, my name was called to return and sit back down. What was this? Had the randy copper decided to press charges anyway? I was sure it wasn’t that big a wallop I gave him. I needn’t have worried, they had telephoned my husband and he was on his way to collect me in the car. There were a few mumblings at this from some of the other about ‘being treated like naughty school girls who had to be escorted home,’ but I didn’t care, I was, looking forward to being safe and sound with my hubby.
Well, of course I was safe and sound, but I can’t say my old man was too impressed when he eventually arrived. For a start, as I wasn’t at home when he got in from work he had missed his tea and was starving hungry, the car had broken down in Kingston and he had to call a friend, who was in the middle of his tea, to come and give him a lift to come and get me. I switched off half way through his complaining so I didn’t at first see the friend he was speaking of. When I did see who it was my first thought was to confess to my heinous crime of assaulting a policeman and get myself re-arrested. The friend my husband had cajoled into saving me was none other than my boss! So, there I stood between my two ‘rescuers’, on the one side being harangued about a missed tea and an empty tummy and on the other side berated about my fitness to attend the Very Important Board Meeting early the next morning to take minutes. I felt like marching round in circles conducting my very own personal protest march right there in the police station. I didn’t though, I took double barrage stoically, thinking only a deep hot bath and cup of tea when I got home.
I never felt truly guilty about the bum-grabbing copper I had walloped, due in part to the fact that on the journey home my faithful banner finally gave up its valiant effort to remain in one piece and, with an ominous crack, broke in half and landed me a clunk on the top of my head, Poetic Justice of sorts. Plus, I never did get to burn my bra!
I cannot leave this account of my pitiful foray into the protesting for Women’s Rights without making the next statement. In the 1970’s our view of the world was much smaller than it is now, the Internet as we know it hadn’t been invented, computers themselves were enormous monsters that used to dwell in the bowels of a company’s premises. Nowadays we look around at the world we live in and see with a troubled eye the struggles of women in other far off countries. Their situation is by far worse than ours ever was, and some of their issues are far more serious. The right to an education. The freedom to choose their own marriage partner, and at an age where they are both physically and emotionally capable of coping with all the responsibilities that marriage brings. The right to decent medical care, especially in pregnancy and childbirth. The right to contraception, should they so choose. These are fundamental rights that no woman should be denied. I think at last, I’m beginning to ‘get’ it.